Updated: Jul 31, 2020
Overcoming Stage Fright
You might not believe it, but when I was in senior high school I had huge stage fright when it came to playing the piano by myself (in no small part due to an embarrassing experience I had at a school assembly). Performing, and particularly performing by yourself, is something that most people find very daunting, if not downright terrifying. However, performing music in front of an audience is not only fun and inspiring, but it’s also an integral part of a musical education, as music is meant to be shared.
To understand how to overcome stage fright, it’s important to understand why performing is so scary to so many of us. It really boils down to two fears:
We’re afraid of what others think of us According to psychology today, three of the four most common core fears are abandonment, rejection and failure. When we get up in front of a group of people and put ourselves on the line like that, all three of those fears become very real possibilities. If you suffer from stage fright, you’ve probably had some variation of these thoughts go through your head:
“What if I mess up?” “Everyone thinks I’m an idiot” “They all think I suck” “No one likes me”
Even if this sounds extreme, when we perform, particularly if we are performing something as personal and emotional as music, we make ourselves vulnerable to the judgement of others, and that’s scary because it leaves us open to them not liking us or our music.
Being self-critical Unfortunately that old saying that ‘we’re our own worst critics’ is often true. One thing that stops many people feeling comfortable performing is that they are overly critical about their own abilities or skills. In terms of thoughts, it might sound like this:
“I’m not a good singer/guitarist/pianist/drummer” “I don’t know what I’m doing” “I can’t perform in front of people” “I make so many mistakes” Self-critical thoughts are often what draw us to comparing ourselves to others. Comparing yourself to someone who has been playing their whole life, this self-critic can say “See?! Look how great they are. I’ll never be as good as them, I’m not a good musician”.
Learning to overcome fears of the audience When you are trying to overcome stage fright that results from fears of what the audience thinks of you (“them”), the first thing you need to know is this: ALMOST EVERYTHING THEM TELLS YOU IS A LIE. Regardless of whether you have an audience of strangers, an examiner, an audition panel, or friends and family, people watch music being performed because they want to be entertained, moved, and they want to see you succeed! When we want to see someone succeed, we will unconsciously focus on all the good things about their performance, and find it very easy to overlook small mistakes, if we notice them at all. Your audience is there to see you do well and will almost never think any of the things you are afraid of them thinking. With that in mind, the best thing we can do to overcome ‘Them’ is ignore it. Easier said than done, but the key thing you can do here is focus on the stage. Focus on what you are doing, listening to your accompaniment or other musicians and engaging with them, and try to stay present on the stage rather than letting your mind wander out to the audience. This is of course a stepping stone – no performer can ignore their audience forever – but while you are learning to overcome stage fright it is better to stay focused on you and on the stage than on anyone else in the room.
Learning to overcome self-critical thoughts Once you’ve dealt with fears of ‘them’, you can tackle self-critical thoughts or ‘me’. Again, we are often more self critical of ourselves than we really ought to be, hearing every small mistake and imperfection, which is almost never what the rest of the world sees or hears. Ignoring self criticism is hard, but we have a very powerful tool at our disposal, that is the imagination. To learn to ignore ‘me’, we have to focus on something outside of ourselves. Fortunately, we have music right there to help us.
If you are singing, for example, focusing on the lyrics of the song, trying to imagine the story you are telling playing out in front of you like a movie, will help you not focus on yourself, and also aid in a great, engaging performance. If you are an instrumentalist, you can do the same thing, trying to hear the story being told through harmony, melody, dynamics, articulations. Practicing staying focused on your imagination before a performance is useful, as it is something that can be practiced so you know you can do it on show night. Finally, here are a few practical tips for overcoming stage fright:
1. Work out the story of your repertoire beforehand. Write down the emotions of each line or section, see if you can even write out a full story for what the piece of music is about. When you perform, focus on this and see if you can use your imagination to create that story in front of your eyes. Try to immerse yourself in this world, see if you can describe it to your teacher in great detail to strengthen the imagination.
2. Every time you hear “Me” or “them” tell you something, remind yourself that they are liars. Talk back to them in your mind, repeating out loud positive reminders like “I can do this”, “I am a good musician”, “My friends and family want me to do well”. Even if you don’t believe them, it is important to keep repeating this to yourself so that the lies ‘them’ and ‘me’ tell you don’t become the truth to you.
3. Perform at first with other musicians on stage – get your teacher to accompany you, or grab a few friends and make a small band. This way you can pay attention to those people on stage with you rather than the audience.
4. A word needs to be said about preparedness – you can be the most prepared person in the world and still get some level of stage fright. However, making sure you are well prepared before a performance will eliminate the unnecessary extra stress that comes from trying to do a performance you’re not ready for. Make sure you practice lots in the lead up to your performance.
5. Also practice performing! Like any fear, it gets less scary the more times we do it and the thing we’re afraid of happening doesn’t happen. For example, if you’re scared that your friends will laugh at you when you perform, try performing in front of one or two friends first. When they don’t laugh at you (As they inevitably won’t), try in font of a couple of other friends. As you repeat this, try performing in front of three or four people, then gradually adding more. The more evidence your brain gets to the contrary of that fear, the harder it becomes to hold onto the fear. Then, when you go to perform in front of people next time and ‘Them’ Tries to say “everyone is going to laugh at you”, you can say back “Well they have never laughed at me before, so why should this time be any different?”. Practicing performing is the most useful thing you can do to overcoming stage fright, and you should look for as many opportunities to practice performing as possible. NMA, for example hosts live lounges, as well as busking and gig opportunities. Exams and eisteddfods are also good opportunities to practice performing.
I hope this is helpful to anyone who is struggling with stage fright or performance anxiety! If you want to know more, a large amount of the inspiration for this blog post came from the book ‘Acting Through Song’ by Paul Harvard, which also has many excellent exercises to help practice overcoming self consciousness and performance anxiety. While it is targeted at singer/actors, it is a great book for anyone who performs and I would highly recommend it if you are interested in further reading or activities.